Based on the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock (which in turn was adapted from a novel by John Buchan) The 39 Steps, playing at the Criterion Theatre, is just simply brilliant, both conceptually and in its execution.
The entire cast comprises of only 4 people playing scores of roles. It is genuinely baffling to see them move with such lightning speed and never once miss a beat. Using fast costume changes and excellent comic timing the players keep the stage in constant movement, giving the play a quick pace that is enjoyable and at the same time creates a sense of action and drama. The script is genuinely witty and it doesn’t have to stretch very far to get a laugh. The combination of comic timing and straight-faced humor had me in fits for most of the 100 minutes of run time. But even though the plot revolves around murder, espionage and mystery, that doesn’t prevent the players from breaking the fourth wall once in a while and including the audience on the joke – a technique that if used minimally and subtlety can be good for quite a few roars.
The most remarkable thing about the play (apart from the 4 player cast) is the amount they manage to do with as little as they use. There are no set changes to speak of. Each new scene is set with the use of props, which there aren’t that many of. Brilliantly, the actors themselves do the work of generating most of the “special effects” – no wind machines, just sound effects and actors flapping their jackets; no elaborate props, just four chairs and a steering wheel to simulate a car – at times it almost feels like the plays we used to put up in college, with little or no budget. The difference of course is they have an amazing way of playing along with the joke, which makes it all the more easier to appreciate the scene and laugh along.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Hitchcock references, or shall I say homages. Some are quite evident, for example when someone looks straight at you and says “Vertigo!” but others are possibly a little more subtle. Keep and eye and an ear out for them when you go see the show.
And you simply must go see it. To quote the official site “Book Now and avoid incredible disappointment” The 39 Steps
An amusing story to close with – The friend who I went to the show with got herself some ice-cream in the interval, as she always does. The only flavor they had was “Hazelnut and Caramel”, which didn’t sound too appealing to her, but she was coaxed into trying it. After trying it myself I turned to her and said, “that just tastes like Butterscotch”, to which she responded, “Oh my god you’re right. It does… Maybe they don’t have Butterscotch in England, maybe Hazelnut and Caramel IS Butterscotch”. I was so amused I just had to share this brilliant observation!